Monday, August 27, 2012

Don't forget!

I came across an astonishing fact this week-end.  I was doing a bit of research on The Coroner's Lunch by Colin Cotterill.  This is the first in a series of mysteries set in Laos in the late 1970s, shortly after its takeover by the Communist Pathet Lao Party.

The protagonist in The Coroner's Lunch is Dr. Siri Paiboun, a physician originally trained in France.  He has been appointed by the Pathet Lao to serve as the only coroner in Laos. At 72, Dr. Siri had already lived far beyond the usual life expectancy age in Laos, but retirement was not an option.  Though he had never before performed an autopsy, he set out to teach himself his new trade with the help of some old, slightly charred French textbooks and the help of two equally clueless staff.

Life at the morgue is fairly dull until the mysterious death of an upper-level Party member's wife awakens Dr. Siri's detective instinct.  Soon he is up to his neck in political intrigue and Laos is teetering on the verge of a National Incident.

These mysteries (the series is now up to #8) are character and setting-driven. Dr. Siri is a delightful sleuth and Laos is a fascinating country.  So fascinating, in fact, that I went in search of additional information.

Cotterill had worked for UNESCO in Laos for several years (he now lives in Thailand) and the books are carefully researched.  When you read that the government was debating the installation of the country's 7th stoplight in 1977, you might wonder, but at that point in time, Laos was a nation with almost no intact infrastructure.

Which brings me to my astonishing fact.  Having lived through the Vietnam War, I knew that there had been a "secret" war in Laos and that many Hmong (a highland ethnic minority) had assisted our CIA in this clandestine effort.

What I didn't know was that from 1964 to 1973, U.S. planes flew 580,944 sorties (177 a day) over Laos and dropped 2,093,100 tons of bombs.  That works out to one planeload of bombs every 8 minutes for 9 years making Laos the most heavily bombed country per capita in the history of warfare!

Laos has been called "The Forgotten Country" -- the Dr. Siri mysteries offer a wonderful way to start remembering.

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